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Congressional panel hears testimony from VA families

by KEVIN BEGOS Associated Press on September 10, 2013 10:30 AM

PITTSBURGH — A congressional committee looking into management problems at U.S. Veterans Administration hospitals heard testimony Monday in Pittsburgh from family members who lost loved ones because of mistakes in the system, and from top VA administrators.

VA officials say a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak at Pittsburgh’s VA hospitals that killed at least five patients since 2011 has prompted a national review of efforts to control the disease.

Robert A. Petzel, the VA’s undersecretary for health, said the problems at the Pittsburgh hospitals changed how the agency approaches Legionella.

He said the VA has changed the water treatment system that’s used to prevent Legionella and has undertaken a major review of safety issues.

Petzel also expressed his “deepest regret and sympathy” to families of VA patients who died.

Though the hearing was held in Pittsburgh to spotlight past problems there, family members from Atlanta, Dallas, Buffalo, N.Y., and Jackson, Miss., also testified.

Petzel said that the problems in Pittsburgh were more than just an “accumulation of inadvertent errors” and that local VA officials could be disciplined.

He said he couldn’t go into detail because of an ongoing criminal investigation.

In addition to the five deaths, at least 21 patients were sickened at the Pittsburgh hospitals.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who chairs the committee, said that even though VA Inspector General reports have linked some deaths to mismanagement, some executives have been given bonuses. Michael Moreland, a regional VA director and former CEO of the VA Pittsburgh system, was awarded a $63,000 bonus in 2012 before the Legionella problems were publicized.

Miller and members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation pressed Petzel over how senior managers could have earned bonuses when serious maintenance problems contributed to the Legionella deaths.

Maureen Ciarolla, of Monroeville, whose father, John Ciarolla, died during the Pittsburgh outbreak, said that families deserve “clear answers” and that the people responsible for mistakes should be held accountable.

Sydney Schoellman, of Dallas, a relative of a VA patient affected by the outbreak, said after the hearing that now “someone who can do something” has heard about the problems in the VA system.

But Schoellman said she still feels that “the way the bonus system is set up, it’s kind of a buddy system,” and that needs to change.

Rep. Mike Doyle, a Forest Hills Democrat, said the deaths at the Pittsburgh hospitals “breaks our heart” but added that the vast majority of VA staff do a good job and care about their work.

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